In 1992, shortly after Stormin’ Norman and co had kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, cultural commentator Francis Fukuyama declared The End of History in a briefly voguish book of that title. Fukuyama’s thesis (into which subsequent global developments have poked several significant holes) was that The Washington Consensus / Neoliberal model had triumphed over all other forms of economic, political and social organisation and would be the only game in town for the remainder of mankind’s tenure on planet Earth. Not everybody believed this when Fukuyama said it and among those who suspected he might be right, not everybody was wildly enthused about the prospect.
Even before he got side tracked into film making in the early ’60s, Italy’s (then) foremost living poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, as well versed in the works of Antonio Gramsci as he was in those of Petrarch and Dante, had been decrying the degeneration of Italy’s Popular Culture into Mass Culture. “Italy’s post-War economic miracle”, as far as he was concerned, was turning out a generation of dead-eyed, dollar-chasing drones.
After a decade of cinematic and personal provocations, Pasolini conceived and executed his Trilogy Of Life, here gathered in a new BFI Blu-ray set. By (rather freely) adapting classic story cycles from Boccaccio, Chaucer and the various compilers of The Thousand And One Nights he offered glimpses of lost worlds, uncorrupted by consumerism, where unalienated people, in all their crapulent, flatulent fleshiness, lived lives of innocent sensuality in defiance of their own poverty and contemporary restrictive social mores.
The Decameron (1971) and Canterbury Tales (1972) are expressions of PPP’s contemporary faith in the common people (or his picaresque vision of same), in all their lustful, acquisitive and roguish “authenticity” (a quality which Pasolini, on account of his homosexuality and genteel antecedents, felt that he lacked)… the great unwashed, whose ribaldry and very zest for life could yet recapture the pre-capitalist, essentially pagan idyll for which Pasolini pined. This, however, was looking less and less likely. In 1973 Allende was overthrown in Chile and the country turned into a prison camp / lab for the development of the neo-liberal policies that were subsequently rolled out internationally and have been rolling over the backs of the 99% ever since.
Arabian Nights (1974) unfolds with the kind of narrative complexity that Quentin Tarantino would give his right hand (or maybe his girlfriend’s right foot) to attain and showcases the ravishing natural beauty of Yemen, Iran, India, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nepal. In this film (and e.g. his 1970 documentary Notes For An African Oresteia) Pasolini was pondering the possible beneficial cultural influences that these Third World countries could exert over The West. No doubt he would have wept if he’d lived to see the scars inflicted by the proxy wars of “more developed” nations on some of those landscapes and their unfortunate inhabitants.
These are unalloyed gems of European Arthouse Cinema, guaranteed to significantly lift your spirits even if they don’t propel you to the nearest barricade. The fact that they didn’t was a big problem for Pasolini. Even worse, the box office success of his paeans to pagan innocence “inspired” an interminable cycle (“a circus” in the words of trash film producer and prolific participant, Gabriele Crisanti) of lowest common denominator, smutty “Decameronesque” imitators, examined and analysed in David Gregory and Alberto Farina’s 35 minute bonus featurette Pasolini And The Italian Genre Film. In that, PPP biographer Serafino Murro posits that the alacrity with which the Italian public gobbled up this garbage (in addition to the political passivity of the Italian youth in whom he’s invested so much revolutionary hope) was Pasolini’s direct inspiration for a notorious banqueting scene in his next (and final) film. Read backwards, the fierce joy that characterises his Trilogy Of Life could be construed as softening us up for the sickening sucker punch of Salò (1975). Indeed, in a dialectical twist that the director, as a convinced Marxist, must surely have appreciated, the sheer scatology (which peaks in the gobsmacking vision of Hell at the conclusion of Canterbury Tales), duplicitousness in relationships and casual attitude towards life and limb evidenced by his unalienated, sensuous salt-of-the-Earth types are the germs of the outrages perpetrated by De Sade’s libertines. Just chew that one over for a minute…
Extras include a collectors’ booklet (which, as usual, I haven’t seen yet) and trailers for all three films. You might well have seen some of the bonus stuff on previous editions. On the Decameron disc you get Notes For An African Oresteia, which would possibly have made more sense accompanying Arabian Nights, but there you go. The latter film is complimented by 21 minutes of footage that were excised after its award-laden screening at the Cannes Festival in 1974. The aforementioned Pasolini And The Italian Genre Film can be found on the Canterbury Tales disc, along with an all new (to me, anyway) interview with Robin Askwith. Boy, he’s aged well… barely looks any different from the way he did in his ’70s heyday and some of his distinctly non-PC asides suggest that his attitudes haven’t changed much since then, either. RA suggests that Pasolini cast him because of their mutual aversion to Franco Zeffirelli and his account of an audition, most of which the director spent mocking the appearance of Askwith’s penis, corroborate that given by one of his Canterbury Tales co-stars in the latter’s riotous autobiography, Who On Earth Is Tom Baker? Pity nobody thought to interview Adrian Street (assuming he’s still interviewable).
The new transfers look and sound pretty good. Some grain is evident on The Decameron, somewhat less on Canterbury Tales and least of all on Arabian Nights, though I counted at least three subtitling howlers on that one (not sure if they’re being corrected for street copies). If you don’t own these films already, here’s the perfect opportunity to rectify a serious deficiency in your collection.